Paul Wilkerson, River City Ministry

Our 5th inductee into our “30 Faces of Hunger Relief” countdown this year is Paul Wilkerson, Operations Director at River City Ministry in North Little Rock.

For 10 years, Paul has helped improve the lives of thousands of Arkansans. His dedication to serve others has provided grace, mercy and peace to those who walk through the doors of their ministry.

Every day, Paul says around 200 people walk through their doors.

“From a hot lunch to a shower to dental work to just a place to feel safe,” says Wilkerson. “Just a place for them to come in and have peace.”

Paul said his path started through medical missions in third world countries with his church. 

“I was blissfully unaware.”

He said his eyes were lifted after helping many malnourished people get the proper medicine and nourishment they needed. After going on several trips, someone then told Paul about a place in North Little Rock that does the same thing to help people in his community.

“I knew it was where I wanted to be. I had a need to serve people every day.”

From there, Paul has worked ten years at River City Ministry, a member agency of the Arkansas Foodbank.  With food from our warehouse, Paul says their operations include a food pantry twice a week, a soup kitchen that serves a hot meal six times a week, and they are a Department of Health Services provider that provides food to those in emergency situations.

Mr. Wilkerson says being able to feed so many each week has been very fulfilling.

“It is very true that if you serve people, you are receiving back….It means a lot to to be a graceful moment in their day in a life that has a lot of turmoil. That is our mission.”

Ultimately, Paul says it is important to show that somebody cares for them as a person…face to face.

On behalf of the Arkansas Foodbank, thank you Paul Wilkerson for being a face of hunger relief and a passionate champion for the hungry in Arkansas.

Connie Bledsoe

Our 4th person on the “Faces of Hunger Relief” list is one of our own: Connie Bledsoe. She is one of the most recognizable faces at the Arkansas Foodbank and is our longest tenured employee at 18 years strong.  She has seen the impact hunger can have all across our state while she has worked with our agency members, but has never wavered as a passionate champion in the fight against it. She has played a big role in strengthening our agency members and coming up with ways to make them more efficient and stable. Because of that, the Foodbank is able to send out 67,000 meals a day across our 33-county service area.

Here is a look at how Connie got involved with the Foodbank and her journey the past 18 years.

What made you want to work at the Arkansas Foodbank?  I had to use a food pantry once in the mid 90's.  The people at the pantry treated me with dignity and respect. I felt like they were so happy to assist me and my two little girls. I worked for the Little Rock School District and was off for summer break.  I decided to volunteer at the Arkansas Foodbank.  I wanted to give back because of the kindness that the pantry showed me.  After volunteering for a couple of weeks, I was offered an office position.  I prayed about it and accepted the job because I felt this was where I was supposed to be.

What was it like when you started?  When I first started working for the Foodbank, they had a small staff, one truck, and they provided food to many small pantries working in the same communities.  The Foodbank was housed in an old UPS warehouse with uneven floors.  We couldn't even drink the water because of the old pipes.  I don't think many people even knew the Foodbank existed because of where it was located and there wasn't a lot of media coverage.  I had never heard of the Foodbank until I had to use the pantry.

What has it been like to see the Foodbank grow to the organization that it is today?  It has been amazing to see all of the growth and changes. The staff has tripled, we have 5 new trucks picking up and delivering food throughout our 33 county service area.  We have a brand new facility.  I could go on and on about the wonderful changes.  Everybody knows who and what the Arkansas Foodbank is.  Every time I turn around, I see the Foodbank on TV or hear them on the radio, etc.  

Describe the importance of our agencies to the Foodbank? Our agencies are the arms and legs for the Arkansas Foodbank.  They see the need first hand, in their community, at their churches, the school on the streets etc. There would not be a need for the Foodbank if we didn't have the member agencies.

You have played a big role in hunger relief in our state...Are there any experiences that stand out that make you feel proud of the work you have done?  I am so proud to be a part of such a wonderful organization that makes a difference in people’s lives every day.  Something that warms my heart is we appreciate our agencies. We have an annual luncheon and provide grants, to the members to purchase refrigerators, freezers, vehicles, food, pay utilities or the purchase gas to come pick up the food.  I wish we could provide this to them more than annually.  Most of our pantries are run by elderly volunteers.  They provide to the needy out of the goodness of their hearts and feel that it is their duty to help their sister or brother in need.  I can't take credit for anything. Now, after 18 years of working for the Arkansas Foodbank, I know that I am in the right seat on the bus!

What's the best part about your job?  The best part about my job is the relationship/friendship that I have built with the member agencies.  They are more like family.  We have shared stories, laughed and cried together.  I love my job and everyone that I work with.

The Foodbank is proud of the accomplishments that Connie and the Program Services team have made the past 30 years.  Thank you Connie for being a Face of Hunger Relief.

Joannie Cayce

At the Arkansas Foodbank, it goes without saying that our member agencies are the heart and souls of the operation. Many of them are volunteers, sacrificing their time to make sure members of their community are fed. Our third "Face of Hunger Relief” comes from a family who's spent five decades putting food on Arkansas tables. Her name is Joannie Cayce.

Cayce is the director of Cayce’s Charity, an emergency assistance organization that provides food, clothes, furniture and toys to families all over southern Arkansas at any hour of the day. With her home located next door to the organization's main building, she says she's awakened to see a line of people outside her doorstep waiting for food. But she doesn’t mind.

“Our family was born with a desire to serve others,” she said. 

Cayce's mother, JoAnn, started Cayce’s Charity 55 years ago. Back then, she would go and purchase the food and distribute it to families directly from her car. These days, their distribution has grown so large that it takes an old antique store and a nearby gymnasium to store all of it. But the Cayces know that is what it takes. They live in an area in Calhoun County with no job market, and the majority of their neighbors have lived their entire lives in poverty. That's why the Cayce’s have gone the extra mile to help these families enjoy blessings that many of us take for granted.

“It gives me more joy to serve than anything else I can do,” Cacye said. “Every day I wake up with love for my fellow man.”

This past Christmas, Cayce’s Charity distributed 724 bags of food to men, women and children near Thornton, AR. Cayce even drove to all the rural areas to make sure everyone had a holiday meal. She said their thankfulness is the best gift she has ever received.

Her determination to help everyone around her is a big reason why the mission continues to grow year. In 2013, they distributed more than 117,000 pounds of food to families in need from the Arkansas Foodbank. And while Cayce and her mother have taken care of the charity for more than five decades now, she said she's not worried about its future. Her son Daniel is already a driving force at the charity, focusing on a new furniture recycling program they're offering. Daniel Cayce's name is on an award given out annually to an Arkansas high school student who best demonstrates selfless volunteerism on behalf of his or her community. During high school, Daniel helped feed kids and teens at nearby schools during the weekend, often putting the meals together himself.

In a letter Cayce wrote to the Foodbank in January, she stated, “Your help is what accomplishes our mission, revives our soul, and give hope and joy unspeakable to those we serve…I pray for us to be able to help more poor, relieve more suffering and accomplish even more for 2014.”

So as you can see, the Cayces are an integral part of life in Calhoun County. They've helped out so many families in more ways than one and for that, the Foodbank thanks you Joannie, Joann and Daniel for being passionate champions for the hungry.

Craig Willis

To commemorate the Arkansas Foodbank’s 30th Anniversary, we are highlighting 30 people who made a difference in fighting hunger in Arkansas.  These people are passionate champions for the hungry and have helped shape the Foodbank into the cornerstone of hunger relief that it is today.

The second person on our countdown of 30 Faces of Hunger Relief is Craig Willis, Senior Program Officer of the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation.

His journey began with the Arkansas Foodbank back in 2000 when the Reynolds Foundation sponsored a study of hunger relief organizations in Arkansas and the potential for coordination of services. From the study, the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance was formed in 2004 to create a statewide, efficient, effective and equitable food distribution system.

After the Alliance was formed (photo left: Willis and Governor Beebe at the announcement), the Reynolds Foundation and Willis started working with the Arkansas Foodbank in 2005 when a planning grant was awarded.

“This was money to look at organizational structure, fundraising capability, and then get into looking at architecture, design, and what would a new food bank look like,” said Willis.

After strengthening our organization from 2005 to 2007, Willis and the Reynolds Foundation decided the Foodbank was ready for an upgrade and extended an invitation for us to apply for a capital grant for a new building.
It was a long road for then-CEO Phyllis Haynes, but well worth it.

“In about 30 seconds after they presented in Las Vegas, the board voted and we gave the Foodbank 10 million dollars,” said Willis, who was the one who got to share the good news outside the meeting room with Foodbank staffers.

So far, the Reynolds Foundation has helped six food banks with new facilities and the results have been astonishing. At the time of their applications, the total distribution of all 6 food banks was 33 million pounds. If you take the 2012 totals of all six, the total distribution is 122 million pounds.

Willis says it is bittersweet walking through the doors of the Donald W. Reynolds Distribution Center each time since its opening in May 2011. But he will be the first to tell you that the 73,000 square foot facility in Little Rock is just a tool.

“Building the new facility and providing the resources to do that is great, but without the people and without the staff and effort…the warehouse doesn’t get full, the food doesn’t go out. Without all the things that go on at the Foodbank, it is just a building. The organization is the people that are in it.”

On behalf of the Foodbank, thank you Craig Willis and the Reynolds Foundation for all of your hard work and dedication. Because of you, the Foodbank has been able to blossom and meet the needs of more Arkansans!

Virginia Brissey

To commemorate the Arkansas Foodbank’s 30th Anniversary, we are highlighting 30 people who made a difference in fighting hunger in Arkansas.  These people are passionate champions for the hungry and have helped shape the Foodbank into the cornerstone of hunger relief that it is today.

Ironically, the first person on our list spent her entire life putting others first: Virginia Brissey.  When we first discussed the list toward the end of 2013 at the Foodbank, members of the staff had very much been looking forward to talking to Virginia about her role as a founding member of the Arkansas Foodbank Network in 1984.

Throughout our 30 year history, not only was she instrumental in forming the Foodbank, she played a pivotal role as a board member for many years, most recently from 2005 to her untimely passing in December 2013.

It was her passion to help others that always set her apart. She spent 23 years working in child nutrition with KIDS FIRST, a program that provides diagnostics and treatment services for children six weeks to five years old that have special healthcare needs.  There, Virginia wore many hats including Operations Manager as well as overseeing the Child Care Food Program. Many of the children in the program came from high levels of poverty. Virginia enjoyed hearing from children in high school who were not thought to be able to go beyond the hospital.

In May 2012, Virginia sat down with the National Food Service Management Institute where she discussed her life’s work in child nutrition.  In the interview she stated, “I've been in the field a lot of years, one I never expected to be in. And I've enjoyed it. I'm well past retirement age, but I'm not retiring. I love what I do. I think I make a difference, and as long as I'm able I want to continue to work at the things that I KNOW are benefiting these kids. That's really where I am.”

On behalf of the Arkansas Foodbank, thank you Virginia for your dedication in improving the lives of thousands of Arkansans and being a face of hunger relief.


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